During the 2019 spring semester, Middle School teacher Edwin Gil introduced a new course to a group of sixth-grade students: Building Community Through Art. In a cross-disciplinary approach, the students incorporated math and science concepts as they designed and created a public art project: A “green wall” that now resides between the Dining Hall and Ridenhour Gymnasium.
Gil led the process of creating organic shapes for the wall; math teacher Michelle Garrity taught them how to scale the shapes to the proper size; Todd Johnson brought them to the Makerspace in Dickson-Hemby to learn how to create 3-D prints of their shapes; and science teacher Sarah Goodman taught them about the plants they would incorporate into the wall.
Throughout the semester, photographer Mike McCarn and Gil’s own Instagram account documented the project.
'Art Saved My Life'
Edwin Gil spoke to Upper School Assembly in October.
His Remarks are edited for length and clarity.
"Art saved my life. When I say that, normally people say, ‘How can art save a life? That’s crazy.” It literally saved it. I have a theory about boxes. When we come into this world, we are like an empty box. We start adding things, knowledge, time, maybe sports. It’s always our choice to put in that box the things we want to keep.
I was born in Colombia (not Columbia), South America… in Medellin. I come from a very poor family. I am the oldest of six kids. And what I remember from my childhood is we all lived in one room, the same room, there were two beds and the kitchen. It was kind of hard because my father was an alcoholic. I started working when I was four years old…. The first job I had was delivering lunches to the company where my dad used to work....
For many years I used to be afraid of Fridays. Because that was the day when my dad would get paid and come home and have the most horrible fights with my mom. Normally we needed to leave the room where we lived and sleep outside....
In my family there was one person who was completely different, my aunt. She always spoke differently, dressed differently. And when I was little I asked her, ‘Why are you so different from the rest of my family, what made the difference?’ She said ‘I went to college. If you want to change your future, you need to push hard. It’s not going to be easy. But you can make that change. Education is the only key you have to go out from this life.’
So I was saving money, and when I was 15 I used to work in a pizzeria. After I got paid I came home to put the money in the same place where I had been saving it, and the money was not there. So I asked my mom, ‘Where is my money?’ and she said ‘Your father took the money, and you cannot say anything because you are in this world thanks to him.’ So I started fighting with him, and then he put me in the streets.
So I was homeless when I was 15. To be homeless in Latin America is completely different than here, believe me. I was raped, I was abused. I saw a lot of things that are still in my box. It’s not easy to take those things out of your box.
Thanks to the mom of one of my friends, she picked me up off the street and gave me the opportunity to start changing my life. She brought me to her home, and that was the first time that I slept in my own bed, in clean sheets. That was awesome. And she took me to the shopping market I remember, and she bought two shopping carts full of food. That was unbelievable how people could have that much food, because I’d never seen that at my house.
I finished high school. That was one of the most amazing days of my life, because I had accomplished a goal. That was awesome.... But sadly that family found another place to live, and they pushed me out. So I did something to myself. I tried suicide when I was 17. Because of that I have a medical condition. I like to talk about that. Because you know, you are responsible for your body.... I went to therapy to confront all the devils that were inside that box, and to try to make a better life. And I did. I went to college. I finished business first, and then a masters in psychology.
And I met the love of my life. He became the most special person. We built a house outside the city. It was awesome. Ten years together. That was the climax of my life. But sadly, in the 1980s and 1990s, Medellin was one of the most dangerous cities in the whole world. People my age, so many people were killed....
So we moved into the beautiful house that we built outside Medellin. But the guerillas came and they tried to kidnap us, but they killed my partner. That was December 1998, and still in my heart, it’s hard to talk about it. The love of my life disappeared. I needed to start from zero. That was pretty hard, pretty tough. As a gay man in Colombia, there wasn’t any support from anybody or the government....
The guerrillas tried to kill me…. They put me in the trunk of a taxi for 12 hours. Every ten minutes, they stopped the taxi and they told me they were going to kill me. The next day they opened the trunk and they said ‘You leave the country or next time I will kill you for sure.’ So I ended up going to Miami, completely lost, no money, nobody, no life.
When my cousins invited me to come to Charlotte in 2000, I started working at Coffey & Thompson art gallery, that was the first gallery in town, doing restoration. That was surprising for me because I think that was the perfect job for me. I did not talk to anyone, and I hardly spoke English. I was in the back of the gallery, restoring a lot of the paintings that you see in The Mint Museum, and restored some frames too....
For me it was amazing that I started healing through this process. I saw the need to connect to my community through art. So I started doing different social art projects. The first project was the Colombian flag with the handprints of Colombians. I started the project in Charlotte which was a little bit ambitious. I was going to connect the handprints of Colombians from around the world in this flag which I was going to present at the bicentennial in Colombia. Many people laughed at me, but I did it. I traveled to 25 different cities around the world, and I collected more than 25,000 handprints. The flag went around Colombia, and it is in the Colombian National Museum of Memory.
I found out that as humans we have a big problem. And the problem is we won’t accept people how they are. We always want to change people. When you go to a park, you see all the trees are completely different, right? They have different branches, different leaves. They are a beautiful landscape. When we talk about the landscape of humans, we don’t have the same acceptance. That’s how I started working to try to promote diversity and inclusion.
Because I was rejected all my life, for being poor, for being gay, for being Colombian, for being Latino. I think ‘No, people need to understand that difference is what makes us special, unique.’ So I did the flag of North Carolina as a flag of hope, a flag of diversity. Right now it is on a monument in uptown. It has 10,000 handprints of people from across North Carolina. It has been displayed since 2010.
I was doing a workshop with the Lincoln Center in New York, and one of my friends from that year was doing a technique that was kind of a challenge. I went to my boss when he sold his location, Coffey & Thompson became parking for Bank of America in Uptown, and told him I kept dreaming about the glass (in the gallery). My mentor sent me to talk to the glass. I went to my boss and asked him if I could go talk to the glass. He said ‘Oh this guy is crazy.’ I go in and I start talking, and I see my reflection, and my reflection looks pretty different. I had the idea to create ‘Faces of Diversity,’ to promote diversity and inclusivity. To bring people together.
My goal is to create 111 installations (made of pieces of upcycled glass). That’s one of the questions, why 111? I started seeing that number, my first apartment was 1111, the gallery address was 1111. I started reading about the meaning of 111. They say it is the ‘waking up’ code.
So through this project I am waking up people to be more accepting. In seven years, I’m at 47 installations. Right now I am working on number 48 with one of the students here. And I’m very happy because it’s going to many people: Harvard University, the city of Boston, the city of Charlotte, the soup kitchen in Charlotte, in south and north Texas. All the time when I go through different cities, I share my story. We work together on these pieces.
I highlight something — this technique involves breaking glass. I found out that in life we are going to break many times. All this is going to be our choice: to take those pieces and make a masterpiece."
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